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Leinster Rugby vs Racing Metro
RDS Showground, Ballsbridge
Saturday, 9th October 2010, 13:30

Television: Live - Sky Sports 1, Highlights 21.30 RTE 2

It's that time of year again - the Heineken Cup is back!

This year blues fans will approach the tournament with a sense of trepidation though as Leinster have been placed in the toughest pool in their history. In fact, there's a strong argument that it's the toughest pool ever in the history of the tournament. There's Leinster, the 2009 champions. There's Clermont, the current French champions. There's Saracens, who only lost last season's English championship by a whisker to Leicester. And last, but not least, there's Paris's Racing Metro 92, the current French league-leaders. It's not so much the group of death as the group of Armageddon! Away wins will be at a premium in this pool, which makes it all the more vital for Leinster to win all their home games. They'll have their work cut out tomorrow against the men from Paris.

Racing Metro will make history on Saturday as it will be their first ever appearance in the Heineken Cup. The reason why it's taken so long for them to make their debut is down to their colourful history. In the late 80's and early 90's Racing Club were the aristocrats of French rugby. The team were based around French international stars like Franck Mesnel, Jean-Baptiste Lafond, Laurent Benezech and Laurent Cabannes and they were a colourful bunch nicknamed 'le showbiz'. They became known for their pranks such as playing matches in berets, bald wigs, black make-up (as a protest against racism) and even drinking champagne at half-time on one occasion.

But a club that was identified with the irreverent spirit of the amateur era had a hard-time adapting to the tough new world of professionalism. In both 1996 and 2000 they were relegated to division two and the second time they went down, it took them nearly a decade to get back. In 2001 they merged with US Metro to become Racing Metro 92. Then multi-millionaire businessman Jacky Lorenzetti took over as President in 2006 and made a huge investment in the playing squad. Suddenly they were attracting big names and within three seasons they'd been promoted to the Top 14. Last season, they finished in a respectable sixth place and were only narrowly defeated by eventual champions Clermont in the play-offs. Coached by Pierre Berbizier, they played a simple but very effective style, based on a huge pack and a good kicking game.

While last season they knew they had the pack, this season they knew they needed better backs so the chequebook came out again and in came Argentina's Juan Martin Hernandez, Fiji's Albert VuliVuli, Italy's Mirco Bergamasco and French internationals Nicolas Durand and Benjamin Fall. Fall and Hernandez will miss tomorrow's game through injury and their regular fly-half Jonathan Wisniewski is also injured so Jerome Fillol plays at ten. Fillol is better known as a scrum-half but has covered there before in his long career. He'll partner the canny Durand in what is a very experienced half-back pairing. Italian international Andrea Masi partners VuliVuli in midfield and another massive Fijian Serili Bobo is on the right wing with Julian Saubade getting the nod over Bergamasco on the left wing. South Africa's Francois Steyn, who can kicks penalties or drop goals from well inside his own half, starts at full-back and completes a very quick and powerful backline.

The first thing you notice about their pack is the sheer size of them. They're all massive, right through to the backrow. They scrummage as an eight too and will no doubt target the Leinster scrum, with the Toulouse semi-final last season fresh in their minds. Italian international Andrea Lo Cicero and Argentina's Juan Pablo Orlandi are the props and combined with veteran hooker Benjamin Noirot, they make up a hard-boiled front row. French international Lionel Nallet captains the team from the second row where he partners yet another massive Fijian in Jone Qovu. Former Sale talisman Sebastien Chabal is in the back row with former Canterbury open-side Johnny Leo'o and former Springbok Jacques Cronje. It's an impressive unit and make no mistake they will feel they can grind the Leinster pack into dust, with another six forwards on the bench to come on to complete the job. How the Leinster front five stands up to them will largely decide the fate of this match.

Last week Leinster finally got their season going with a narrow but well deserved win over Munster. After a couple of terrible performances against Treviso and Edinburgh, the Leinster fans demanded a massive improvement and the players delivered. They gave the required physical commitment and Sean O'Brien, who had his finest game yet for Leinster, led them in this respect. He took the fight to Munster (literally at times) and gave a complete performance with big tackles, great carries and a vital charge-down of a drop goal attempt. The highlight though was the beautiful one-handed pass for the try. It's the type of pass Brian O'Driscoll has become famous for, so it was apt that he was the one to take it and run it in. Though it was certainly nice to extend the winning run over our biggest rivals, Leinster will realise that they need to improve their performance if they want to beat Racing on Saturday.

For a start they won't be able to get away with trying to run everything out of their own half in the first twenty minutes, like they did last week. These tactics were suicidal and another opponent could have picked off their many turnovers to the tune of twenty points. To be fair they improved as the game went on and put in a storming second half. It was pretty clear that Leinster improved immediately when Eoin Reddan and Jonny Sexton both entered the fray. To that end, the good news is that both start tomorrow with Isa Nacewa going back to the right wing in place of Shane Horgan and Isaac Boss dropping to the bench.

The other two changes to the team are in the pack where Shane Jennings has recovered from injury to reclaim his place at open-side flanker. This means that O'Brien moves across to blind-side, with Dominic Ryan dropping to the bench. As Leo Cullen is still not quite ready to resume playing, the second row is unchanged and Nathan Hines and Devin Toner will look to continue their good work in the lineout from last week, particularly on the Racing throw. The final change is in the front row where Heinke van der Merwe starts at loosehead with Cian Healy dropping to the bench. This is a horses-for-courses selection and though Healy won't be happy about it, the hope will be that van der Merwe can give Leinster a solid platform in the scrum to build on. He, Richardt Strauss and Mike Ross face one of the biggest challenges in their career tomorrow in taking on the fearsome Racing scrum.

No doubt Racing will come flying out of the blocks tomorrow and their pack will look to stamp their authority on the game. But if Leinster can stay with them in the first period, then hopefully they will have the experience to pull away in the second half. It's going to be a brutal street-battle up front but if Leinster can win parity through the likes of O'Brien, Hines and the captain Jamie Heaslip, then they'll have a good chance.

With an early kick-off and sunny weather forecast, it's going to be an unusual way for Leinster to kick off their campaign, but the prospect of the Heineken Cup brings a crackle to the air and hopefully the RDS crowd will cheer Leinster to a vital win tomorrow.

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby

Racing Metro
Teams Rob Kearney
15 Francois Steyn
Isa Nacewa 14 Serili Bobo
Brian O'Driscoll
13 Albert VuliVuli
Gordon D'Arcy
12 Andrea Masi
Luke Fitzgerald
11 Julien Saubade
Jonathan Sexton
10 Jerome Fillol
Eoin Reddan
9 Nicolas Durand

Heinke van der Merwe 1 Andrea Lo Cicero
Richardt Strauss
2 Benjamin Noirot
Mike Ross
3 Juan Pablo Orlandi
Nathan Hines
4 Lionel Nallet (C)
Devin Toner
5 Jone Qovu
Sean O'Brien 6 Johnny Leo'o
Shane Jennings
7 Jacques Cronje
Jamie Heaslip (C)
8 Sebastien Chabal

Replacements Jason Harris-Wright
16 Carlo Festuccia
Cian Healy 17 Scott Zimmerman
Simon Shawe
18 Julien Brugnaut
Mariano Galarza
19 Santiago Dellape
Dominic Ryan 20 Mathieu Loree
Isaac Boss
21 Mirco Bergamasco
Fergus McFadden 22 Remy Vaquin
Shane Horgan
23 Antoine Battut

Not Considered
due to Injury
Stan Wright
Leo Cullen
Kevin McLaughlin
Shaun Berne
Ed O'Donoghue
John Fogarty

Juan Martin Hernandez
Benjamin Fall
Jonathan Wisniewski
Benjamin Sa
Officials Referee: David Pearson (RFU)
Assistant Referees: Rob Debney (RFU), Stuart Terheege (RFU)
4th Official: Peter Dennehy (IRFU)
5th Official: Ken Henley-Willis (Leinster Rugby Referees)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2010-10-10